Updated: Gwen Stefani says 'I'm Japanese' and all hell breaks loose

Causing controversy is always what the news media is looking for, dating to even its golden era. In current times, controversy is the only reaction that the media aspires for.

The cake of outrage with the icing of virtue-signaling and an occasional cherry of victimhood on top is served to consumers to generate revenue.

Now for the latest controversial remarks by vocalist-songwriter Gwen Stefani.

In an interview with Allure magazine, Stefani, who is of Irish-American and Italian-American descent, remarked: “I’m Japanese.”

Few cared for the context of the remarks, they slammed it as cultural appropriation. Social media amplified the chaos.

Here’s the context:

Stefani said she was influenced by Japanese culture since childhood when her father, who traveled between California and Japan for work, regaled her with stories of Japanese street performers cosplaying as Elvis Presley and women with colorful hair in the town of Harajuku near Tokyo.

Stefani said that she traveled to Harajuku as an adult and experienced the Harajuku subculture. Stefani was so enamored by it, she recalled saying “My God, I'm Japanese and I didn't know it."

This was Stefani’s way of expressing an affinity and a deep but inexplicable connection to the culture.

Harajuku influenced Stefani’s 2004 debut solo album, Love. Angel. Music. Baby, and she toured with four Japanese and Japanese American backup dancers called “Harajuku Girls” and launched her popular “Harajuku Lovers” fragrance collection, available in bottles resembling the ‘Harajuku girls.’

Stefani’s interviewer, Allure editor Jesa Marie Calaor, who is Filipino-American, claimed that Stefani’s words of being Japanese “seemed to hang in the air” between them.

Calaor wrote that Stefani said she was Japanese multiple times and even identified with Hispanic and Latino communities and was “a little bit of an Orange County girl, a little bit of a Japanese girl, a little bit of an English girl.”

Calaor wrote that as a first-generation Filipina-American teen ‘starving for Asian representation in pop culture,’ she grew up wanting Stefani’s Harajuku-inspired perfumes, but the price tag of $45 was unaffordable. 

Calaor revealed as an adult, she is reexamining Stefani's Harajuku era and thinks it may be cultural appropriation

Calaor recalled being attacked with racial slurs because of her appearance, fearing for her father’s safety while he traveled on New York City subways, and boiled with anger as ‘grandparents were being attacked and killed because they were Asian.’

Perhaps those anger issues are still unresolved.

Calaor characterized Stefani as insensitive for claiming ‘to be part of this vibrant, creative community" but avoiding "the part of the narrative that can be painful or scary."

Calaor conceded that Stefani wasn’t purposefully malicious or hurtful, yet insisted that “words don’t have to be hostile in their intent in order to potentially cause harm.”

Calaor revealed that she and her colleagues, both Asian and Latina, walked away from the interview ‘unsettled.’

It caused Calaor to consult the co-director of Asian-American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and a therapist of a psychotherapist group that serves the Asian-American community.

Both seemed to confirm Calaor's belief that Stefani was inappropriate, and that her lack of awareness wasn’t an excuse for her behavior, and being from the “dominant group” Stefani has the power to 'appropriate the customs of a marginalized group without the original context.'

Calaor seemed resentful that Stefani “made a lot of money tapping into other cultures for inspiration,” explicitly mentioning Stefani’s clothing line earning over $1 billion in sales. Also mentioned is Stefani selling over 50 million albums worldwide.

Calaor also mentions that Stefani has “taken some of those profits and made charitable donations” including $1 million and proceeds from a Harajuku Lovers T-Shirt following the tsunami in Japan.

The interview seemed like a premeditated hit job on Stefani. Allure magazine probably chose interviewers of Asian background knowing they could query Stefani about her fondness for Japanese culture and use her answer to cause outrage and attach their personal victimhood to it. That the story certainly gave Allure and Calaor some attention reveals the perils of print interviews.

Now for the outrage itself.

Some acts are definitely at this stage passé.

Blackening a face like Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did, or like former Virginia Governor Ralph Northam did for a fancy dress party is considered inappropriate.





Mocking or faking accents is also considered inappropriate.





What about 'diversity' that those who are outraged by Stefani, claim to champion?

It often means hiring people of minority groups based on skin color, religion, sexual orientation, etc. overriding meritocracy. These recruits are used for photo ops. Whenever there is an event, they are made to sit in the first rows. This forced diversity by the standards of those outraging over Stefani's comments can be called insensitive because it uses shallow tokenism instead of real empowerment.

Let’s look at the other side, i.e., the celebration of other cultures.

Back in the '90s, Stefani dressed up in a traditional Indian saree for an awards event. I remember it brought a smile to my grandmother's face when I showed her a photo of Stefani. Stefani used to wear a traditional Indian Bindi during that phase. It clearly wasn’t meant as an insult, it was a tribute. She was popularizing Indian culture through her art.

Similarly opening an Indian restaurant where the servers dress in traditional Indian clothes is not an insult, it is a compliment to India that its food and culture are so popular that restaurants are opened in the U.S. or the U.K. If the servers apply brown color to their faces and do a mock Indian accent that may be rude. It about the details usually.

The people outraged by Gwen Stefani's comments either fail to comprehend or purposefully conflate that chasm of difference between a tribute and a caricature. It is worth stating the obvious that a tribute is a compliment while a caricature is meant to be an insult. 

Similarly, there is also a considerable difference between adopting and celebrating another culture owing to its fondness and lampooning any culture with the purpose of demeaning it.

Stefani was celebrating the Japanese culture and exposed to an audience the U.S. and Europe. Much like sports, entertainment can be an effective medium for bringing people together. It may have caused people to gravitate toward Japanese culture and even be empathetic toward people of Japanese heritage? Perhaps fewer people will face discrimination the way Calaor did. Yet she isn’t celebrating.  

If faux controversies such as the one with Stefani continue to happen, it will cause complete cultural segregation. Nobody wants to suffer hassles, hence people will stick to their lanes and befriend only people from the same culture.

There will be fewer forums for the exchange of ideas because people will be petrified of causing offense. This could be at the cost of us the next great invention that could make lives better or save lives.

Another result of these hoaxes, where outrage triumphs over nuance, are that it will trivialize real bigotry and many dark chapters in human history, because if everything is bigotry, nothing is.

The title of the following song when Stefani was part of the group No Doubt, is an apt message for the permanently outraged.


Editor's note: An earlier version of this piece inadvertantly published only a partial version of this piece, the above is the item in its entirety. Apologies to Rajan.

Image: Zach Cierzan, via Wikipedia // CC BY-SA 4.0

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